THE PUNK SINGER
Directed by Sini Anderson,
USA, 2013. 80 minutes.

“There’s an assumption
that when a man tells the truth, he tells the truth.
As a woman, when I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” 

Kathleen Hanna, activist, feminist and the eponymous punk singer at the centre of Sini Anderson’s cut-and-paste documentary, has more control over her image than she thinks. In the film’s opening scene, a 23 year-old Hanna reads a venomous spoken word poem, spitting hard truths about sexual abuse to a roomful of captivated young women. Later, Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl plays over grainy footage of Hanna wearing a magenta sweater and gazing seductively into the camera. Somehow both warm and ferocious, Hanna flits between stomping around her stage, urging all of the girls in the audience to come to the front (quite literally creating a safe space for women in Olympia, Washington’s notoriously rowdy punk rock scene) and handing out handmade zines on sexism. It is this charisma, charm and warmth coupled with Hanna’s passionate, un-tempered rage that makes her such a compelling subject. Using VHS-era archive footage interspersed with talking head commentary from rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights Joan Jett (The Runaways) and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) to Tavi Gevinson, the founder of teen magazine Rookie, The Punk Singer is part music video, part history lesson and part feminist manifesto.

Hanna was, and in many ways still is, the poster girl for the Riot Grrrl movement, an unapologetically brash punk rock incarnation of third-wave feminism. A reaction to the commercialised glamour of the 1980s, Riot Grrl seized the anti-authoritarian angst of 90s grunge music and swirled it with baby barrettes and Valley Girl accents.
Best known as the lead singer of the now-defunct all-girl punk band Bikini Kill, The Punk Singer chronicles Hanna’s various artistic ventures, including her solo project, Julie Ruin (written, produced and recorded in her bedroom), the short-lived celebratory electro-pop trio Le Tigre and her new band, The Julie Ruin. The Julie Ruin follows Hanna’s unexplained hiatus circa 2005, a break that is revealed to have been triggered by Hanna’s diagnosis of a debilitating case of late-stage Lyme disease.

Despite the film’s focus on Hanna’s musical exploits, Anderson does not shy away from confronting the gossip that engulfed Hanna’s life in the mid-90s. Rumours surrounding Hanna’s alleged experiences of incest and rape, her friendship with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and a particularly well-publicised altercation with Courtney Love of Hole (Cobain’s wife) are put to rest, as well as the mythology surrounding her infamous penchant for promiscuity. In archive footage of Bikini Kill’s early shows, Hanna writhes around the stage in her underwear, the word ‘SLUT’ emblazoned across her stomach. A former stripper turned feminist activist may sound odd — and indeed, at the time, entirely incongruous with the Gloria Steinem school of second-wave feminism — but Anderson allows Hanna to set the record straight herself. Tracking her self-proclaimed “origin stories” from her time studying visual art and photography at Evergreen State College, where she was inspired by artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, Anderson contextualises the distinctly intellectual brand of feminism that set Hanna apart from her contemporaries. In detailing this intellectualism, Anderson helps us to understand Hanna’s embodied sexuality as performance, as subversion, and as a deliberate effort to explode stereotypes about female sexuality.

Hanna’s feminism is much like her expression of her sexuality – entirely on her own terms. She reflects on her relationship with now-husband Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz of The Beastie Boys, describing how difficult it was to navigate her public persona as a radical feminist while falling in love with a man who frequently raps misogynistic lyrics. This is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. In allowing Hanna to speak her own truth, Anderson succeeds in acknowledging her as more than just a figurehead, revealing the complex, self-contradicting human being.

While The Punk Singer does at times slip into hagiography, particularly in its refusal to delve into the murky territory of the Riot Grrrl movement’s exclusionary racial
politics, for the most part, it conveys its message clearly. The Punk Singer neither attempts to critically evaluate Riot Grrrl, nor situate it in a modern-day context, though Hanna’s influence on modern-day feminism is apparent. In one scene, we see a young Hanna wearing a pink ski mask in an interview, perhaps inspiring the imagery used by both feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, and the bikini-clad post-feminism in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Rather, the film, with its zine-like construction, is a whistle-stop tour of the fun stuff, of Hanna’s highs, and above all, a personal portrait of one girl’s ambition to create a space for herself in the front. _

 

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